Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The location and characters in the play are a blend of soap opera and classic drama. The setting is Two Mile Hollow, the Donnelly's family mansion that has just quickly sold, and the plot focuses on the last day that matriarchal Blythe, her daughter Mary, and her two step-sons Joshua and Christopher spend at the house as they divide, and fight over, its contents. While they are extremely wealthy, they are also catty, miserable and insufferable, and constantly bicker and complain as the alcohol flows non-stop and insults are hurled. Turns out money can't buy happiness. As the secrets, jealousies and resentments are revealed, into this family comes an outsider in the form of Christopher's ethnic assistant Charlotte.
Nanako Winkler has clearly done her research, as the play includes references to dozens of modern issues, pop culture references, literary quotes, and nods to the famous family theatrical dramas. While the playwright is a risk-taker in her requirements that non-white actors play these very white characters, the play is also overstuffed with ideas, theatrical elements, and a message that never truly makes its point. The elements and ideas include a combination of characters who sometimes pretend they are birds and some who occasionally have bizarre ways of speaking. The theatrical devices include, for some unknown reason, having just one of the characters break the fourth wall to talk to the audience, an odd dance between Mary and Charlotte that depicts their female solidarity, and an even more bizarre musical segment that sticks out and makes no sense at all as to why that moment is sung. It all comes across as if Nanako Winkler threw everything against the wall to see what would stick and decided to just leave it all in the play anyway. While there are fleshed out and funny characters and some laugh out loud moments, the piece is also padded with a second act that could use a decent trim and several jokes that don't land.
As far as the point Nanako Winkle is trying to get across: Are the non-white actors mocking the pretensions and over-privileged aspects of white people? Are they simply making fun of the Caucasian characters they are playing? Or, is this a harsh statement on racism in response to how we've seen so many white characters hurl racist insults at others? While Charlotte is made to be the hero of the piece, she is also completely focused on finding happiness and success and is even sleeping with her boss to help her career. So, if Nanako Winkler is trying to say something about how bad wealthy white people are, and the ones in her play are pretty bad, having Charlotte also be power hungry and greedy doesn't quite get that point across.
Or maybe there is some other point that escaped me?
Stray Cat's cast excel at the humor in the piece and all throw themselves into their parts with broad humor and overly expressive gestures. As the twice-divorced Mary, who claims she's never had anyone love her and is constantly belittled by her family members, Erin Kong is superb, showing Mary's vulnerability and pain. As Mary's brother, who thinks he's worthless, Kane Black evokes the perfect balance of shyness, depression and low self-esteem. Vinny Chavez is hilarious as their successful brother Christopher who seems to have it all, though, while he's got two Oscar nominations, he's most well known for playing the part of "Dr. McDrill-Me" on a TV show. So, even Christopher has things to complain about.
Constantly holding court whenever she's in the room while ruling with an iron fist, Dolores Mendoza is excellent as Blythe, the woman who is used to getting her way and treating the "help" as if they are far lesser individuals. Mendoza's grand gestures and authoritative way of speaking create a solid and sturdy portrayal of this matriarch. As Charlotte, the play's only sane and mostly reasonable character, Samantha Hanna creates a woman who is well equipped to hold her own against the Donnelly foursome.
Louis Farber's direction keeps the humorous moments bright while allowing the few serious scenes to resonate. With moving boxes and items strewn about, scenic designer Aaron Sheckler and properties designer Michael Peck evoke, within reason, the grandeur of a house that's been sold, with its contents in various stages of being packed up. Dallas Robert Nichols' lighting beautifully portrays the daytime and nighttime scenes while also shifting our focus, appropriately, between moments that take place at the same time in various rooms in the house.
On one hand, Two Mile Hollow is a succinct parody of familiar white, wealthy dramatic characters and says a lot about how they have dominated literary and dramatic works for years. On the other, it's a mildly amusing comedy with some big laughs. Stray Cat's production has a talented cast who embody their characters with glee. I only wish that Nanako Winkler's play were less cluttered, with a message that was clearer.
Stray Cat Theatre's Two Mile Hollow, through February 2, 2019, at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe AZ. Tickets can be ordered by calling 480-227-1766 or at straycattheatre.org.
Director: Louis Farber